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2017-18 Central Division preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Can the Blackhawks return to form this season and ready themselves for another Cup run?

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

In the days leading up to opening night on Oct. 6 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside will break down the Stars and their six opponents in the Central Division. Continuing our previews today: the Chicago Blackhawks.

Past previews:

Oct. 2 -- Dallas Stars

Sept. 30 -- Minnesota Wild

Sept. 29 -- Winnipeg Jets

Sept. 28 -- St. Louis Blues

Sept. 27 -- Colorado Avalanche

 

Chicago Blackhawks: 50-23-9; lost in the first round

Tip of the cap to Marian Hossa: First off, a tip of the helmet to Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks will be without Hossa, a legitimate Hall-of-Fame candidate, who has been ruled out of action this season with a skin condition. The popular 38-year-old had 26 goals last season, so his presence will be missed throughout the organization, and there remain serious concerns that he may never return to the NHL as the Blackhawks put him on long-term injury reserve Wednesday. Hossa likely deserved more love as far as the Frank J. Selke Trophy consideration went over the years, but regardless, he remains one of the best two-way forwards of his generation and his absence cannot be overstated.

Filling the void of key absences: Hossa, who won three Cups with Chicago, isn't the only familiar face absent from the Blackhawk lineup as Niklas Hjalmarsson was dealt to Arizona in the offseason. Johnny Oduya, repatriated from Dallas at last year's trade deadline after winning two Cups in Chicago, is also gone. Brian Campbell, another former Blackhawk who returned in the hopes of recapturing past glory, retired at the end of last season opening up all kinds of room on the blue line for a new generation of defenders. But it's Hjalmarsson, who always played in the shadow of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith along the blue line, who represents a cornerstone player whose absence will be keenly felt. How that void is filled will say much about the Blackhawks' fortunes this season and moving forward. The guy we're most interested in is 24-year-old Connor Murphy, a 6-foot-4 defender, who was the 20th overall pick in 2011, and will likely play alongside Keith to start the season.


Welcome back: Yes, lots of goodbyes for a Chicago team some observers believe is headed for the decline that afflicts all dynastic teams under the salary cap. But the Blackhawks will welcome back a couple of familiar faces as Patrick Sharp signed a one-year deal to return to the team with whom he won three Cups after spending the last two seasons in Dallas. Sharp hopes to put behind him an injury-marred 2016-17 campaign, and if he's healthy, he'll play top-six minutes and could get back to the 30-goal mark, effectively replacing Hossa's lost offense. Meanwhile, Brandon Saad returns after a blockbuster deal that saw former Rookie of the Year Artemi Panarin head to Columbus for Saad, who was dealt to the Blue Jackets two summers ago when GM Stan Bowman worried that he couldn't afford to match a potential offer sheet. The thinking is that Saad, a two-time Cup winner who is just 24, will re-invigorate captain Jonathan Toews, who is coming off a 21-goal campaign his lowest production since coming into the NHL in 2007. Look for Saad, Toews and Richard Panik to form the team's most productive forward unit.

Is the magic beginning to run out? Bowman has been lauded since taking over for Dale Tallon the summer before the Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup win (the first of three between '10 and '15) as being able to deftly maneuver the 'Hawks through all kinds of salary-cap issues while keeping the team playoff ready. Does two straight one-and-done playoff springs suggest Bowman's magic is failing? It's really less about the core; Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook and a healthy Sharp are winners with a capital 'W'. It's the rest of the lineup that needs to step forward. Saad is a huge part of that. But so are youngsters like Nick Schmaltz, who looks to start the season centering Patrick Kane and Sharp, Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza up front, and Gustav Forsling and Murphy along the blue line will have significant responsibilities. Dynamic Alex DeBrincat, 19, is already getting some preseason Calder Trophy love, and will get a shot with the NHL club to start the season. So, if the kids are all right, the Blackhawks are back in the contending game. If not, then the playoffs will be touch and go.

Window of opportunity not shut quite yet: If there is reason to believe in a Blackhawk renaissance, it's not just history, but logic. The Blackhawks won a Cup in 2010 and went out in the first round to Vancouver and Phoenix before surging to Cup wins in 2013 and 2015, with a trip to the Western Conference final in between. Yes, the core is older, but they're still well within the Cup comfort zone, and they've had two long summers now, and that means they should be physically -- and mentally -- ready for another run at glory.

 

Prediction

This is a watershed season for the Blackhawks. Can they bounce back to contender status or has the window really closed on a model franchise? For us too soon to close the book on this team.

Blackhawks finish second in the Central Division.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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